Swimming was banned in Burlington Bay (Hamilton Harbour) in 1924 when the water became highly polluted by sewage, oil and other industrial waste. Further restrictions were imposed in the 1950s.
In 1970 George Kerr, at that time MPP for Burlington South, referred to polluters as ‘thieves’ and vowed that within five years the water in the bay would be clean enough to swim in.
The popular, pipe-smoking politician became the first Environment Minister of any province in Canada in 1971 and in the summer of 1975 made good on a promise to swim in the water, taking a dip in August of that year.
The cleanup process still had a long way to go, and Kerr later conceded it. In fact, the coliform bacteria count near LaSalle Park was 20 times higher than the level considered safe for bathing. But today, to a large degree thanks to scientists at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters, marine and plant life is slowly returning to the bay.
Scientist Sue Watson said she would be ready to swim in Burlington Bay, but she cautioned nobody should swallow the water yet.
Scientists at the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (CCIW), a federal research centre located beneath the Burlington Skyway, study topics like pollution, toxicity and climate change in the Great Lakes area and beyond.
Most of the research is done by scientists aboard the vessel Limnos, which gets its name from limnology the study of inland waters.
The small ship, captained by Blaine Morton, is designed to venture into shallow water so that samples can be taken. It can access nearshore regions to a minimum depth of seven metres.
Lab facilities aboard the Limnos make it possible for samples of water and sediment to be tested right away so that they do not become contaminated. It has a staff of 16 officers and crew, as well as 16 scientific personnel.
Canada and the U.S. operate under the Great Lakes Quality Agreement.
“We have to work with the U.S. to control this problem.” Watson said. “Sometimes we have American scientists on the Limnos.”
The growth of algae, which is supported by nitrogen and phosphorus, is Watson’s area of expertise.
Algae are undesirable for several reasons. They negatively affect the food chain and can lower property values because of the stench that accompanies them. They often account for the smell that emanates from Lake Ontario during August, usually the hottest month of the year.
Masses of algae hundreds of kilometres wide have been found at the western end of Lake Erie.
Scientists rotate their research around the five Great Lakes. This year the focus is on Lake Michigan. Last year it was on Lake Erie. The Great Lakes cover an area of 774,000 square kilometres
The first Great Lakes water quality surveys were conducted on Lake Erie in 1962 and Lake Ontario in 1965. Approximately 100 stations are monitored on Lake Ontario.
The quality of water at the beaches also is monitored by the Region of Halton and the City of Hamilton, then notices are posted advising the public if it is safe to swim in that area. Generally speaking, ‘No swimming’ notices are posted following large rainfalls, which can push contaminants like goose droppings into Lake Ontario.
Burlington’s drinking water comes from a deep area in Lake Ontario. However, it is treated extensively before going out for human consumption
The Waves Tower, clearly visible in the lake from the QEW near Hutch’s Restaurant, was designed to study waves and water movements. It rises 10 metres above the surface of the water and is anchored to the bottom.
Record rainfalls during June boosted water levels in Lake Ontario by 33 centimetres and they now are 16 centimetres above average. Some parts of Burlington Beach have been narrowed to about six feet wide.
High levels, however, enable lake vessels to carry larger cargoes and recreational boaters to steer their craft into slips more easily.
Scientists say there are no tides on the Great Lakes. However, on a shallow body of water like Lake Erie there can be a large difference in levels between Buffalo at the eastern end and Toledo at the western end.